It's Saturday afternoon around 5pm and my dance partner Jaklina and I are cooling our heels with some of her friends in Central Park's Sheep Meadow. Knowing that we are bellydancers one of the hosts gave us coined hipscarves while we shook our hips to the music coming out of the boombox.
And even though we were pretty exhausted from the Dance Parade earlier that day, still in full makeup and lugging our heavy costumes around -- hers in wheeled luggage and mine in an enormous backpack -- our dancer's bodies could not resist the lure of a pulsing beat. I placed a beer bottle on my head and drew some "oohhhss" with a choo-choo shimmy-layered figure eight, and a quick knee-drop and undulating rise (i.e. drop to a more-or-less graceful squat quickly so it looks like the object will fly off your head, then start undulating and pull up like a snake).
As I did this, I noticed a girl in a black dress, dark hair and sort-of-Goth makeup videoing me. She cooed and asked if I was a dancer. I said I was and that we had just returned from the parade. She asked if she could video us again. I called Jackie over and we did a short synchronized routine for her. She thanked us and walked away.
We went to talk to one of the hosts. Several minutes later, half-Goth Girl slithers up behind him, wrapping her hand around his waist but doesn't join in the conversation. When he steps away, she says to me, "You know, your backpack is SO AWESOME! Could I video you dancing with it on?"
My skin crawled.
"Um... no, sorry. It's really heavy and I'd rather just let it be." I turned away quickly to talk to someone else and hGG disappeared.
When she left I turned to Jackie.
"Do you know what the deal with her is?"
"No... I've never met her. I don't even know who she is friends with here."
"OK. Because she just really creeped me out."
"Yeah, I know... that thing with the backpack was really weird...."
What on earth had she really wanted? What had all that videoing been about in the first place? And the gushing praise....
It put me in mind of an episode from The Sopranos -- Season 1, Episode 10, "A Hit is a Hit" -- where in therapy Tony recounts a golf outing with his doctor neighbor and his top-flight pals. He describes his youthful mockery of Jimmy Smash, a friend with a cleft palate:
Every time he'd open his mouth, we'd piss ourselves laughing. But Jimmy didn't mind because he got to hang out with us, you know, popular crew. Although we only called him when we were bored. ..We'd say, 'Hey Jimmy, sing "Mack the Knife."' And because he wanted to hang out with us, he'd belt it right out. .. And when the laughs got old, we stopped calling him. It wasn't until years later I found out that the poor prick was going home every night and crying himself to sleep. ...
When I found out... I felt bad. But I never really understood what he felt ... to be used, you know, for somebody else's amusement, like a fucking dancing bear, till I played golf with those guys.
So I was half-Goth Girl's dancing bear, it seems.
Perhaps she is the sort who trolls social situations, luring people into doing embarrassing or compromising acts which she can capture on video and do God-knows-what with. And she is hardly alone. One need only watch Tosh.O for ten seconds (or its sad precursor America's Funniest Home Videos) for confirmation that this is our culture's norm: We use each other for sport -- and all too often offer ourselves up for use. But why?
Attention is part of it, because attention looks and can feel an awful lot like love, even when its source is the exact opposite.
When we love a thing, we give it our full attention, we are pulled into it -- sometimes in spite of ourselves -- and can't help but want to know it, to be with it, to have it as part of our lives. This feeling of loving attention is a vital nourishment to a growing psyche; in it, we see ourselves reflected back and begin to develop a feeling of being worthy and wanted merely for being ourselves.
But if the attention is narcissistic (i.e. where the person giving the attention merely sees a part of him/herself in the other, and therefore does not really see the other person at all -- in other words, the exact opposite of love), and is doled out by inept, shallow or emotionally unavailable adults -- then desperate confusion can occur.
Not long ago, a frustrated new-parent friend commented that things were "much better now that the baby is finally old enough to start doing things that are genuinely cute, so it is much less about just caring for his needs."
I was aghast.
This is not to say parents should find every burp their little ones exude to be heartbreakingly adorable. Parenting is yucky and difficult (and although I am not one, I have the testimony of many parents that this is true) and it is hard to fault parents for craving some reward in the form of cuteness.
But I can't help but worry that, even as much as my friends love their kid, they -- like all of us -- have been reared in a culture where we are given unreasonable expectations of what it is to be a parent. And part of this expectation involves wanting entertainment value from children, which can't help but confuse a kid's perception of being loved and valued.
Can we really be surprised that we have become a reality-TV-besotted society of dancing bears and their predatory spectators.
Knowing too well my own bearish needs for attention, I tend to be hyper-vigilant for predators; but I also try to be aware of whether I am seeking attention or just having fun and expressing myself, and not to let myself be shamed out of the latter.
When a child's craving for attention is shamed enough, he or she learns to repress it. But like any repressed need or emotion, the psyche will still require an experience of attention. And so the predatory urge begins... As a child, I noticed several peers who did this -- my own sister chief among them -- who would sense in another any "childish" need for attention, then dole a mockery of "attention" to their victim.
If the victim was especially lonely or had low self-esteem (a la Jimmy Smash), he/she would lavish in the praise, only to be led down a demeaning path and dropped precipitously by his/her "admirers."
A devastating experience.
And in this way even I began to suppress myself and was even tempted to follow the predatory impulse. But I've never enjoyed the humiliation of another; it has never given me the sense of power and superiority that it seems to give others. I've found I would much rather express myself as I am and deal with the occasional raised eyebrow -- childish though I may be at times -- than to turn on the part of myself that likes to get down and boogie at a picnic.
And it seemed on Saturday that I was in the majority as others started dancing too.
Half-Goth-Girl slunk her way to a picnic blanket far from the boom box and did not emerge again.